Article 50: Taking back control?

29 March 2017

Today, Theresa May will trigger Article 50 – starting the two year countdown to the UK leaving the EU.

Here’s three big questions we need to answer in that time:

  1. What will happen to social investment?

Through European Social Fund around £2.2bn was invested in learning, skills and employment across England between 2007 and 2014. It makes a real difference to people’s lives, though the way the money is invested has its flaws. Ultimately the UK is a net contributor to the EU budget so, all else equal, the money will be available to continue this work when we leave. But right now there is no commitment to that.

In general, governments don’t like making spending commitments beyond the current Spending Review and ultimately a new government, post-General Election, could reverse any such commitment. But this is a special case – were we not leaving the EU, it would be guaranteed. At the Learning and Work Institute, we want to bring people together to make this case. But we need to invest differently too – we think social investment should be devolved to cities and regions, better aligned with other services and more focused on outcomes.

We therefore call on the government to guarantee social investment at its current level but in a more cost effective way, and for political parties to include this in their manifestos for the next General Election.

  1. What will our migration policy be?

Part of last year’s vote related to a desire to reduce migration and have greater control of migration policy. This relates directly to the Government’s manifesto commitment to reduce migration to the tens of thousands – a commitment it has consistently failed to meet.

It should be easy to agree to protect the rights of EU migrants already living in this country (and UK citizens living in the EU), though challenging in practice to make that work. Beyond this, it is clear that migration brings benefits to our economy and society. Nonetheless, policy toward migration from EU countries is likely to be brought more in line with that from non-EU countries.

Press reports suggest the ideas under consideration include: freedom of movement for EU citizens with a job offer (as opposed to the more general freedom of movement today); or a system of work permits (with the numbers issued depending on an assessment of economic need). The latter risks extending the worst central planning elements of the current system for non-EU migrants: predict and provide simply doesn’t work. Instead, it might be more realistic to adapt the current points-based system for non-EU migrants – but this will clearly be a matter of some debate over the next two years.

Another issue is the benefits available to migrants – this was a feature of both the campaign and the renegotiation that preceded it. Once we leave the EU, it may that EU migrants (like non-EU migrants already) are required to live here for a certain number of years before they are eligible for various benefits and tax credits. In addition, we set out last year in Making Migration Work proposals to increase the number of English classes and drive take-up of these.

We therefore call for:

  • the rights of existing EU migrants and UK citizens resident in other EU countries to be guaranteed and for urgent work to consider the best way to do this;
  • a flexible migration system that provides controls but avoids central planning; and
  • residence-based requirements for benefits and greater rights and responsibilities to be built into the benefit system.
  1. How can we secure future prosperity and ensure everyone can share in it?

Theresa May’s big idea is a country that works for everyone. There has been much talk since the referendum (some overdone) of people feeling left behind, that their chances in life were limited even if they did the ‘right thing’. This is related to the cost of living crisis – the 2010s are on track to be the worst decade for living standards since the Napoleonic Wars.

So we need a renewed drive for full employment – it is unacceptable that on current trends it will take 200 years to halve the disability employment gap. Alongside this, some serious drive behind technical education and the Industrial Strategy – central to our future growth. And underpinned by better progression opportunities for those on low pay – new forms of employment offer benefits to people and consumers, but risk growing insecurity.

We therefore call for greater investment in a full-blooded Industrial Strategy with full employment and lifelong learning at its heart, and for implementation of Taylor Review reforms to ensure a level playing field for all forms of employment.

Last year was tumultuous, settled norms were shaken. This year the pieces start to settle. It is crucial we help to shape this new future, of an outward-looking Britain succeeding due to the skills of its people.

Big questions demand big answers.